This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for February 23, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
Turn-of-the-century Texas beer joints have fascinated me ever since my parents first told me stories about my father’s beer joint in Dime Box, so you can know that I’ve written about them fairly frequently. Like most turn-of-the-century Texas beer joints, my daddy’s place looked like a saloon right out of a Western movie, with its standing bar and spittoons, not to mention hitching post out front. Most Germans, my father included, loved their beer (which they joking called “German lemonade”), a fact which meant you could make a good living owning a saloon in Lee County, Texas.
The Wends, on the other hand, liked beer, but seemed to prefer whiskey. By the time I was old enough to remember anything, my father was no longer in the beer dispensing business, and we celebrated more frequently with my maternal relatives than with my paternal ones; so I grew up knowing more about the “firewater” preferences of my mother’s side of the family. The members of my mother’s family were nose-to-the-grindstone, hard-working Wends whose consumption of alcohol was usually restricted to Christmas, New Year’s, birthdays, engagements, weddings, confirmations, and other celebrations. And being old school Lutherans, there was the men’s drink and the women’s drink.
The Wendish men would have their whiskey (in my family’s case, bourbon), and their women would drink what I call “Wendish whiskey,” a concoction of flavored water made from caraway seeds and spiked with whiskey. The caraway seed water, which was called “Kümmel,” weakened the whiskey, as women in those days were considered “weaker” than men.
“Kümmel” was actually the German word for “caraway seeds,” but it was so commonly used to refer to the alcoholic drink that Wends called the drink “Kümmel.” Calling the whiskey drink “Kümmel” was also no doubt due to the fact that a popular old country liqueur, first bottled in Germany in 1850, was called “Kümmel Liqueur.” It was made from boiled and distilled caraway seeds and flavored with fennel and cumin. Coming to Texas from Germany in the 1860’s and 1870’s, my ancestors would have been familiar with this popular liqueur. I suspect that out in the middle of nowhere in Texas, the early Wends attempted to imitate this liqueur by adding whiskey to boiled caraway seed water.
My maternal grandmother loved this drink, and either drank it hot or at room temperature, even though the men would put ice in their whiskey straights. My mother and her sisters preferred beer to “Kümmel,” which was the other alcohol choice for women; I never saw a Wendish woman drink straight whiskey. Children were allowed to drink hot “Kümmel” without the “firewater,” and I remember neither particularly liking it nor disliking it. Since Wendish cuisine called for caraway seeds in so many things, such as meat balls, potatoes, sauerkraut, homemade “stinky” cheese, etc., I found the taste of “Kümmel” very familiar and certainly not disgusting (as non-Wends did).
“Homebrew,” homemade beer made by folks at home was very popular in the United States until Prohibition in 1920 caused the activity to go underground, -- after which, I’m sure it was just as popular and just as widely done. Throughout the world, for about 7,000 years, making beer was considered part of a woman’s job, along with cooking, baking, and cleaning house. I don’t know at what point in history it became a man’s activity, but I was told my maternal great grandfather made homebrew, at least until it was outlawed in 1920 (if he were as determined and as hard-headed as his descendants, I would guess he continued until he died in 1928).
During Prohibition, alcohol levels in beer higher than 0.5 percent were considered illegal, and, as strange as it may seem, total legalization of homebrew-making did not occur until President Carter signed a bill making it totally legal in the 1980’s! Maybe men became brew-makers when to do so was against the law (who wants beer with only 0.5 % alcohol?), and considered too risky a job for the ladies. In any case, I never in my life drank a glass or bottle of homebrew. Although I have always been curious about its taste, my dislike for beer in general has kept me from seeking out homebrew.
Modern recipes show Kümmel Whiskey made from Canadian Whiskey and vermouth, but that wasn’t the way my family made it. I searched Mama’s recipe box for a recipe for “Kümmel,” but found none, which isn’t surprising since she never liked it. I did watch my grandmother make it for herself many times, and her method was simply this:
Boil 1 teaspoon caraway seeds in 1 cup of water. Pour 1 to 2 ounces of bourbon whiskey into a coffee cup. Pour the hot caraway-seed water into the cup. Add 1 teaspoon sugar. Stir.
Whenever my mother’s family got together for a celebration, which was frequently, -- you even celebrated the end of cotton-picking season, -- the firewater of choice was whiskey, “Kümmel,” and/or beer. Even though the women in the family regularly made mustang grape wine, wine was never used for celebrating. Even my father, whose ancestors came from an area in Germany famous for its excellent wines, drank only beer. Even today, given the choice between straight whiskey, “Kümmel,” or beer, I’d take “Kümmel” any day.
Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.